After unexpectedly making as much news as just about any team in the country a year ago, Monmouth has been conspicuously quiet on the national scene this year. But don’t be fooled.
Out of the spotlight, the Hawks have been loading up for another run at an NCAA Tournament appearance, quietly dominating the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Monmouth also now has the distinction of being the first team in Division I to guarantee itself a postseason berth, wrapping up no less than an NIT bid after clinching the MAAC regular season title with a 93-75 roll past Niagara Thursday night.
Justin Robinson-the Hawks’ terrific 5-foot-8 guard and ringleader-scored 27 points and hit seven three-pointers, while Je’lon Hornbeak continued his late-season renaissance with 16 points and four triples. In all, Monmouth made 14 of 28 from three-point range, shooting that was way too hot for the Purple Eagles to keep up with.
In many ways, the Hawks aren’t quite as good of a team as the one a year ago that captured so much attention, some for the well-documented antics of its bench players, some for big-time brand name wins over teams like Georgetown, Notre Dame, UCLA and USC. This year’s team doesn’t have a win with anywhere near that name cachet, with best victories out of conference over Princeton and Memphis, and a loss at the buzzer in overtime at South Carolina represents a major chance that got away.
Monmouth also hasn’t necessarily been dominant from game-to-game in the MAAC, with six of its conference wins by seven points or less, and the Hawks don’t even have the Bench Mob anymore, as the group decided to quietly leave that legacy with last year’s team. What this team does have, though, is a consistency displayed in a current 13-game winning streak, and the toughening that came from difficult non-league schedules the last two years as well as last year’s hose job by the NCAA selection committee that disregarded the team’s attempts at scheduling and instead looked for out-of-context reasons to keep Monmouth out of the field.
The Hawks also are as deep as almost any team not named Florida State or Wichita State, with 12 players who regularly get in at some point. Monmouth features an outstanding backcourt and enough depth to compete up front, and is a team built to cause some trouble in the NCAA Tournament if it can get there. As last year taught us, there’s no guarantee the Hawks will get there, but it is a squad that has the look of a team on a mission.
- Michigan continues to take care of business at home, while Wisconsin continues to stagger. The Wolverines topped the Badgers 64-58, taking control down the stretch to hand UW its second straight loss. Michigan is a rotten 1-6 on the road this year, but that might not matter with this year’s collection of bubble teams, and to its credit the Wolverines have picked up some impressive wins at Crisler Arena lately (plus still have early season wins over SMU and Marquette in their pocket). Wisconsin, meanwhile, played without Bronson Koenig, who continues to nurse a calf injury, and its last two games show just how vulnerable this team is when it misses its most important guard.
- Gonzaga trailed San Francisco by five midway through the first half. The Bulldogs ended up beating the Dons 96-61. Nigel Williams-Goss finished with 30 points, seven assists and six rebounds. This explosiveness is why everyone should be taking the Zags seriously as a contender in March. USF is a solid team, and Gonzaga made the Dons look like a victim in a guarantee game in early December.
- Arizona eased by Washington State 78-59 to improve to an incredible 24-3 this year. Absolutely no one would’ve pegged this team for that mark before its season opener. Meanwhile, Oregon and its ridiculous highlighter uniforms easily handled Utah 79-61, as the Utes played without Kyle Kuzma, who injured a knee in practice earlier this year. The Ducks have now won 41 straight at home, the longest streak in Division I.
- UNC Wilmington still holds a one-game lead over College of Charleston in the CAA-barely. The Seahawks led by 20 at halftime at Northeastern, but then had to sweat out a furious comeback before winning 66-65. T.J. Williams led a valiant rally by the Huskies, scoring 27 of his 33 points in the final 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Charleston had to weather a game that went down to the wire as well, beating Hofstra 76-72 only after the Pride had a chance to take the lead in the final seconds.
- Belmont was pushed by Eastern Kentucky but pulled out a 76-72 win, giving coach Rick Byrd his 750th career win as a collegiate coach.
- Florida Gulf Coast is closing in on the Atlantic Sun regular season title after an 80-73 win at New Jersey Tech. It’s been a long, strange year for the Eagles (most notably Marc-Eddy Norelia’s puzzling decline from a preseason All-American contender to averaging just over eight points and four rebounds per game-when he hasn’t been out altogether), but they’re still the team to beat in the A-Sun tourney, which is just around the corner.
- Mark Gottfried will be out as head coach at North Carolina State at the end of the season, the school announced Thursday. Gottfried will finish out his sixth and final year at the school, where he has won 122 games in his career so far and made four NCAA Tournament appearances but likely will miss the NCAAs for the second straight year. The Wolfpack’s season, and really past several seasons, have been well documented; N.C. State teased every so often, but just hasn’t been able to find consistency, even this year with what was thought to be a loaded roster before the year.
Tonight’s Menu: One of the busier Friday nights in a while
- It tips with a pair of MAC rivals meeting as Kent State is at Akron (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPNU), with the Zips looking for their 31st straight win at home.
- The game of the night is the resumption of the spirited rivalry between VCU and Richmond (9 p.m., ESPN2). This has become a must-watch series for any serious college basketball fan, and it promises to be a frenzied atmosphere.
- A big one in the Horizon has Valparaiso at Oakland (7 p.m., ESPN2). The Golden Grizzlies jumped the Crusaders in the teams’ first meeting at Valpo, harassing Alec Peters with a sticky defense, but Oakland had a stretch losing four out of five games soon after that one and trails the Crusaders by two games in the HL standings.
- The Ivy League schedule is paced by two big ones, with Columbia at Harvard and undefeated league-leading Princeton visiting Yale. These are the top four in the Ivy standings now, and it’s not inconceivable at all that these will be the four fighting it out in the first-ever Ivy postseason tourney.
- One game in the Big Sky has nearby rivals Idaho and Eastern Washington meeting at EWU.
- Finish up the night in the Pac-12 with one rivalry game, as California is at Stanford (10 p.m., FS1).
Have a great Friday and a terrific weekend.